One of British actor Dirk Bogarde's greatest film roles, that of Von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," required his immersion in the German master's words, style and characters. Therefore it is perhaps not surprising that one may hear echoes of Mann in his first book of fiction. There is now, in addition to the photographic, tactile, gracefully synthesized detail that characterized his two earlier volumes of autobiography, a density, a breadth and depth of character analysis and description; an interwoven tapestry of disparate relationships; an ability to digress for pages at a time and yet return to the main action without marring the flow, boring the reader or becoming ponderous.
"A Gentle Occupation" amplifies a part of Bogarde's life he touched on in his second memoir, "Snakes and Ladders." Despite the author's obligatory disclaimer that "Any resemblance to any single person, alive or dead, is quite coincidental," the novel is based on his experiences as aide-de-camp to the commanding officer of a British holding action in Dutch Java and contains at least two (besides himself) life models -- his red-haired, blue-eyed commanding officer and the beautiful upper-class Eurasian woman he loved.
Bogarde writes about men and women trapped in a footnote to history. It is 1945. The war is over. Except, that is, in the Dutch East Indies, where the British are desperately trying to "normalize" the situation and prevent a civil war . . . at least until the ravaged Dutch are ready to reclaim this turbulent corner of their crumbling empire. "Normalize" means being hated by both sides -- by the native insurrectionists who shout Merdeka!" (freedom) and hack up whatever Dutch refugees they can get their hands on; by the Dutch townswomen freed, finally, from their Japanese captors and shunning the British "traitors." Benjamin Rooke, a personable, rather expedient young English captain trained as an air photographic interpreter (as Bogarde was), finds himself posted to a fictional island where there is no need for his particular expertise.
Although there are villains and heroes in this story, Bogarde is most skillful in showing how thin is the line that separates them. It is not only collaborators, thieves and prostitutes who bend honor and natural inclinations in order to survive. On Rooke's first night, he succumbs to the sexual blackmail of Maj. Geoffrey Nettles, head of Island Intelligence. Nettles, an elegant "El Greco angel," lives up to his promises, wangles him the job he wants and remains is nonsexual angel throughout the book.
Much later, Rooke tells his lover, Emmie, of it and asks if she is shocked. She shakes her head: "Oh no. You are so beautiful how could I blame him? Or you? There is always a price to pay for survival, you see? Like the women in Molendijk."
Bogarde sketches an appealing love story between Rooke and Emmie, the half-Dutch, half-Japanese conventbred concentration camp survivor who "collaborates" with the British but refuses to get involved with the rumors and tracking of war criminals which, indirectly, almost cause Rooke's and nettle's deaths.
It is his eloquent, poetic and oftentimes sensual descriptions that Bogarde excels: "She stood before its sleek, shining virginity, motionless with a kind of awe; reverence almost. . . . Kneeling to seek further delights, she found them in the glit letters CRISPATOR. . . . Rising to her feet slowly, swinging the door closed all in one graceful movement, she pressed her body close to the smooth metal, tracing, with a finger, the raised golden letters before her. FRIGIDAIRE. Laid her cheek hard against them, felt them bite into the flesh like a cold branding iron and the years of unshed tears spill hot and stinging from tightly closed lids. She wept. And in this act of submission astonished herself. Tears, burning tears. . . . Tears for a refrigerator."
His beautifully delineated character studies are like portraits sprung to life -- the asexual, golden desolation of David Gaunt; Miss Foto, the plump Belgian prostitute who makes an art of survival; horsy nurse Pritchard dreading the end of glory. Bogarde spins a small, neat, old-fashioned tale of treachery, jealously, atrocity and stiff-upper-lip heroism. Every thread of the complex plot is pulled through and knotted cleanly at the end. But, even though handled with imagination and skill, it is not the plot and certainly not the too-part ending that will impress the reader most. Rather, it will be Bogarde's sense of place, his sharp, quiet wit and the discerning richness of his observations that will leave the reader with special vibrations of discovery and warmth.